Surviving the close shaves of cycling, hairy legs and all

Competition: In today's Race for Pulaski or in longer events, the writer finds that behind the bright colors is a pack of intensity separated by razor-thin margins.

May 26, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

WARSAW, Va. - Let's get one thing straight: I am not shaving my legs.

As I look around at the bicyclists in the pack waiting for the start of the Tour de Warsaw, the hairy calves emerging from my Lycra shorts put me in the distinct minority. There are theories about why cyclists shave their legs - a streamlined passage through the air, easier-to-clean scrapes after crashes - but I don't buy any of them.

A year on the local competitive cycling circuit, which began when I came to this town on the northern neck of Virginia for my first serious race a year ago, has taught me better. I know that hairy legs are the least of my problems. It is not easy to make a bicycle go fast. And even if you can make one go fast, you still have to learn how to race.

Like many such subcultures - whether reptile breeding or fencing - bicycle racing in America stays mostly below the threshold of the public consciousness, surfacing only occasionally in its multi-colored spectacle in places like Warsaw.

It makes its biggest appearance in Baltimore in some time today, when the Race for Pulaski hits Patterson Park as part of a daylong celebration of all things bicycle. Starting at 9:30 a.m., a colorfully clad contingent of area cyclists will race around a mile-long loop at the western end of the park in a variety of categories, from the near professional to the very beginner.

In Europe and in other countries, bicycle racing is a mass sport with a few at the front racing to win and everyone else forming into groups to see how fast they can go. A few years ago, I participated in a race of 22,000 cyclists in Cape Town, South Africa. But there's little in the way of such a populist movement in this country, the kind of wave that brought running to the masses 25 years ago. American bicycle racers seem to enjoy their elite, shaved-legged status, proud to remain a subculture even as they complain about their sport's lack of popularity.

Multi-lap events around short courses, like today's Race for Pulaski, are known as criteriums, fast and furious dashes. The Tour de Warsaw, by contrast, is a road race, more grueling in length, but saner in pace. The other major type of contest is the time trial, riders going off at one-minute intervals, racing only against the clock.

My first year at Warsaw, I ran into my cycle guru, Paul Silvestri, just before the start. "I'm scared to death," I told him. A year later, with a dozen races and a winter of weight-lifting and pack riding under my belt, I was back for another two loops of the 27-mile course. This time, I was merely terrified.

There were a couple of reasons for that. One of the main ones is that you can get hurt riding in a pack of 50 bicycles, inches apart, going upward of 25 mph. It's not as if I'm racing with Lance Armstrong and his fellow Tour de France types. I race in the category for men over the age of 50, guys generally less intimidating than the younger riders who sport tattoos and body piercings. We know we have to get up on Monday and go to work. But, still, as the cleaned-up version of the bumper sticker says, Stuff Happens.

The physics of cycling provide another cause for psychological terror. I came to the sport after a fairly successful couple of decades running long distances. Standing on the starting line of a marathon, the competition you face is essentially against yourself. If you fail, you merely fade to a slower pace, your disappointment a private affair between your ambition and performance.

But when you ride a bicycle, about 30 percent of your energy is spent forcing the air out of the way. So, if you can get close behind another rider - drafting - your work is much easier. That is why most cycling races feature big packs - known by the French word, peleton - as racers seek to stay within that aerodynamic cocoon.

If for some reason you cannot keep up with the pack, you are dropped, left alone to battle the wind as the peleton pulls away into the distance. Many think you'd just as well not even bother to finish. Your failure is evident, your humiliation public.

And so my goal in this year's Tour de Warsaw was simple - finish with the pack. I failed to do that last year - not just in Warsaw, but virtually everywhere else I raced.

As in many races, the 50-plus men were riding with the women, one of four fields competing on the course that day, each starting about five minutes apart. Motorcycles in front and behind give each peleton a rolling enclosure to protect it from traffic - another reason to keep up.

The technology

The sound you hear at the beginning of a race is click-click-click-click-click. For the last 15 years, top cyclists have used pedals based on ski-binding technology that locks their shoes to the pedal for efficiency. Click in and go.

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